Murder on Mysteria Lane, Chapter One
Last time I got stuck in a graveyard after dark, I missed the final episode of Lost. This time, an immense werewolf leveled a shotgun at my nose.
I could smell the sharp tang of gun oil in the dry desert air.
“Heather McPhee,” he cocked his weapon. “I order you to halt!”
“You and what army?” I came up short, less than an inch from the double barrel. You really could poke an eye out with that thing. My gray cargo pants clanked with handcuffs, stun gun, mace, two fixed blade daggers and of course my lucky boot knife.
A desert wind blew in from the west, pelting the aged tombstones with rocks and debris. Two more werewolves emerged from the darkness. They took positions on either side of the scraggily, bad-breathed Goliath.
Great, just great.
“What’s the password?” he growled.
Like I knew. “Out of my way you hairy oaf.” I started to move around him until his hand closed around my arm in a vice grip. “Ow!”
“Don’t play with me, girl. I’m not afraid of your kind.”
Too bad everybody else was.
“Listen, brainiac,” I said, fighting the urge to stomp his foot, “I’m here the Alpha’s orders so unless you want to take it up with Finnegan–”
The guard growled low in his throat, his face a mix of shadows. “Finnegan should have told you-”
“Well he didn’t.” Not that he wouldn’t be on my shit list for that. But to be fair, the guy had a pack to run. And an emergency it seemed.
I craned my neck around the wall-of-weres to see if I could catch anybody peeking out from the crypt.
There was no little stone house-like structure or stone angels to guard it. The Topanga Pack buried their alphas bunker-style. The shadow of the hole gaped low and menacing in the canyon bedrock. Thirty stone steps surrounded by sandstone walls ended in a solid oak door.
Lovely. No help in sight. Whoever was there to meet me was already inside – waiting.
“He’s not answering his phone,” barked the bodyguard to my right.
“I’m thinking he might be busy,” I snapped. I would be too if I could get past these clowns.
The top dog didn’t just open up the Crypt of the Alphas for his health, or an all night kegger. It was unsealed maybe once or twice a year for matters of pack justice. I was his only interrogator, a position I rather liked. So when Finnegan ordered me to get my ass down there, I’d bailed on my dinner date with a bucket of KFC’s original recipe and made a bee line for my boss.
Until I’d run smack dab into a boulder.
“You know I’m not a threat,” I said. For heavens sake, it’s not like the overgrown Chewbacca and I weren’t on a first-name basis. We’d played together as kids – Mary Poppins to be exact. And I wasn’t the one dressing up as the flying babysitter.
Just because he’d avoided me for the past twenty years didn’t mean I’d forgotten. The bodyguard had other secrets too. Everyone did. That’s why my bugged-out powers came in so handy.
I’d been born with the Truth gene, an obnoxiously rare and recessive trait that showed up about once every seven hundred years. Lucky me. I could ask a question and literally make a person tell the truth.
Within limits. But I wasn’t about to start broadcasting that little tidbit.
“Want me to start asking you questions?” I asked.
“Can it, McPhee,” he said with a snarl, casting a glace at the wolves on either side of him. His eyes had widened a touch. I recognized the fear.
I reached into my back pocket for a rubber band and proceeded to pull my long red hair into a ponytail. Lucky for him I wouldn’t be unleashing my powers in the middle of the Wolfs Lair flats. First off, it would be downright mean, even if my old buddy was being an ass. Second, using my powers gave me a massive hangover.
This joker wasn’t worth it.
“What’s it going to be, meathead?”
“I can stand here until Finnegan comes out looking for me. No sweat off my back. Though it may mean the skin off yours.”
He growled low in his throat as I started whistling the Jeopardy theme song.
“I don’t have time for this bullshit,” he grumbled, standing aside.
I nudged him with my elbow as I brushed past.
He growled low in his throat. “Freak.”
Oh goody. Things were back to normal.
I descended the thick stone stairs into the darkness of the tomb. I may not win Miss Popular 2011, but my pack was stronger because of me.
Frankly, I’d rather be needed than accepted.
The coarse walls were broken every so often by burial carvings and caked with canyon dust.
“Where were you?” Finnegan’s voice boomed before I’d even reached the bottom of the stairs. “Never mind,” he added. “Just get your ass down here.”
It was cooler underground, the air stale. I could smell the pack leader’s agitation even before I came upon him pacing in the center of a small, circular room.
A turquoise and orange pack crest spread across the ceiling. In the flickering light, I could read the inscription:Riamh daingnithe i gcúinne.
Never backed into a corner.
It didn’t look like our pack leader was doing so hot tonight. Finnegan jammed his hands into his copious red hair. His bulbous nose had gone red and his beard twisted sideways where he’d been yanking on it.
Behind him, a shirtless human sat lashed to a wooden chair etched with runes and death spells.
“We need you to question this…gardener,” the alpha said, as if he wasn’t quite sure what a gardener even did. “He’s from Eternal Life Estates.”
I wrinkled my nose. “In Vampire County?”
The humans called it Malibu.
It was where trophy wives went to die.
Or not die…as the case may be.
Finnegan gave a tight smile. “I’ll remind you of my littermate who moved to Eternal Life Estates.”
I nodded. Sunshine McCarty, the bleached blonde, boob-enhanced darling of the pack. Growing up, she liked to tease me by pretending I was a boy.
As far as insults went, it was pathetic.
Let her yank out her eyebrows and wobble around on stiletto heels that, let’s face it, would make it impossible to knee anyone in the balls. I liked to keep my options open.
I studied the olive skinned gardener. I didn’t get why any were – or this human for that matter – would move in with the vampires. Sure it beat botox. Once you married a vampire, you stopped aging. Trophy wives for centuries.
I blew a few strands of hair out of my mouth. No matter what I did, my hair always ended up in my face. “What do you want to know?”
Finnegan folded his arms over his chest. “Sunshine was killed three nights ago.”
I shook my head, not sure what to say. Comforting words weren’t exactly in my nature. Not that the alpha would want to hear them anyway.
He gave me a long look, the candles flickering shadows over his burly features. “She was murdered.”
Now that surprised me. If Sunshine had been willing to chip a nail, she could have gone up against any were. Unless she’d come face-to-fang with her vampire husband.
“How did it happen?” I asked.
“Crushed to death.”
Finnegan tugged on his beard. “We’ve kept it out of the papers. The pack won’t know until we get justice.” He stood behind the visibly shaking man. “It happened yesterday afternoon.”
That ruled out a vampire, at least directly.
“This is our witness,” Finnegan continued. “His name is Marcos.”
I studied the man, glad to be back in familiar territory. “Let me guess. He’s not talking.” We’d change that.
I tilted my head, my boots grinding grave dirt into the stones as I approached. “What did you see, friend?”
The man shook his head, a thin sheen of sweat slicking his forehead. “N-nothing. I was trimming the hedges.”
“The hedges! I heard a loud noise. I ran. Upstairs.” His eyes darted away. “That’s where I found her.” His lower lip trembled. “Under her bathroom chandelier.”
I resisted the urge to ponder the idea of a chandelier in the bathroom. I swallowed hard, locking eyes with the man in the chair as I unleashed a magnetic power from low in my chest. “What did you hear?” I felt the buzzing in my head, the dry tightness in the back of my throat. Marcos and I connected, as if by a thin wire.
“A woman’s voice,” he said, clearly surprised to hear the words come out of his mouth. “I could barely understand her. She said that Sunny deserved what she got. And then she got even angrier. She said, ‘and I hate your lawn.’”
Finnegan rushed to the bound man’s side. “Who was it? Did you see her?”
My mind reeled as if he’d smacked me up side the head.
“Finnegan,” I cringed. He knew better.
He halted, but he didn’t apologize. Being an alpha means never saying you’re sorry.
Head clanging, I asked the question. “Did you see who was in the bathroom?”
“No.” He winced. “I was tied to the bed.”
“Of course you were,” I said, throwing up a warning finger at my leader. If he jarred my mind again, I was going to lose our witness. And because Finnegan knew the stakes, I got away with it.
I turned back to the gardener. “How often did you have sex with the victim?”
“Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays. Whenever I worked.”
“Son of a bitch!” Finnegan swore behind me.
“Did her husband find out about your sex-capades?” I asked.
Vampires tended to be intensely sexual, and not particularly good at sharing. Then again, if the husband knew, he probably would have just eaten poor Marcos.
The gardener trembled, his eyes wild. “Her husband was too busy with his own mistress.”
“Who was?” I prodded deeper.
He was sweating heavily. “Sunny wasn’t sure,” he said on an exhale. “All she knew is it was one of the other Predators.”
My head was pounding now, but I had to hold on. “Who are the Predators?
“Five shifters.” He caught himself. “Well, now there are four: Francine, Nina, Bliss and their whipping girl, Tia.”
“Gotcha.” I glanced up at Finnegan. “We’ll start there.”
My vision swam and I felt my hold loosening. I broke our contact. “I’m done.”
My record was five minutes. This? Well, this was the best I could do tonight. My head throbbed. It would only get worse. Tapping minds gave me a hangover like I’d downed a fifth of SoCo. Not that I’d ever voluntarily do that to myself.
Shaking, I folded my hands behind my back and lowered my chin to the alpha.
“Very nice indeed,” said a man’s voice, smooth as glass.
I whipped a dagger out of the back of my pants as a vampire emerged from the shadows behind me.
Panic shot through me. Why didn’t I smell him? Why didn’t I see him? My blood ran hot.
Finnegan must have blocked him from me. I didn’t understand.
He was taller than I would have liked. Leaner. His shoulders were wide, his stance confident. This one was going to be a bitch to take down.
Finnegan raised his hand. “Hold back, McPhee.”
“He’s a vampire.” I might be able to get hold of him by the hair. It was clipped short and blonde.
“McPhee,” Finnegan’s tone was a direct order. “This is Lucien Mead. My guest.” He put an emphasis on that last word.
The vampire bowed at my pack leader’s introduction. A hint of a grin gave him an almost boyish charm. A swirl of desire wound through me. Left over adrenaline, no doubt.
Get it together. Hot or not, he was still a vampire. A fucking bloodsucker! I wasn’t going to be seduced and bitten.
Even mosquitoes had more integrity than that.
The Alpha was not amused. “Lose the knife and say hello.”
I gritted my teeth. If Finnegan was okay with the vampire, he must be working with the pack.
I couldn’t quite bring myself to put away the knife. Not yet. He was easy on the eyes. In fact, he reminded me of Iceman from Top Gun. He had that look, and that cool confidence.
“How did you do it?” he asked, his eyes raking over me.
“McPhee’s power is a pack secret,” Finnegan said, as if he knew how I did what I did. Hell, I didn’t even know. Finnegan stood his ground in front of the vampire, who was a full foot taller. “Do you want us or not?”
Lucien gave a long, slow grin. “All right. I’ll take her.”
My head hurt for a whole new reason. “Take me?” He couldn’t take me. I had a pack. I had a home.
Sensing my urge to bolt, Finnegan laid a hand on my shoulder. “It’s only temporary. We need someone to go undercover.”
I’d never been undercover.
Lucien drew too close for comfort. “I need a were to pose as my wife.”
Finnegan continued as if I hadn’t said a word. “You two will be the newest couple to move into Eternal Life Estates.”
“I’d rather eat glass.”
Finnegan’s hand tightened on my shoulder. “You’ll be going to Malibu, McPhee. Haven’t you always wanted to see Malibu?”
“No.” I had everything I needed right here in the canyon.
“Nevertheless, your skills are required,” Lucien said. “We have a window of opportunity. A new couple was set to move into Eternal Life Estates. We’ve commandeered the house for the investigation. However, it will be tight. Mr. and Mrs. Duke are scheduled to arrive tomorrow evening.”
“You and Detective Mead will pose as the Dukes,” Finnegan said.
“Detective?” I stared at the vampire. “What are you, some sort of undead Columbo?
Lucien grinned. “You could say that. I report to the Vampire Council.”
Lovely. Even if the man was some sort of an eternal cop, he couldn’t just drag me into this. “Aren’t there protocols? Rules?”
“Yes,” Finnegan growled. “Obey your pack master.”
Had he lost his mind? “In case you two haven’t noticed, I’m not the trophy wife type.”
“Lower the dagger,” Finnegan snapped.
Oh yeah. I hadn’t noticed I’d been waving my knife. I pulled it back and used it to clean a wedge of dirt out from under my fingernail.
This was ridiculous. How was I supposed to be a Sunny clone? He’d better not make me wear a girdle.
“You’re going to help Detective Mead sniff out Sunny’s murderer,” Finnegan said, by way of a rah-rah speech.
Fuck a duck.
“You’ll get the truth out of the were wives of Vampire County.”
As if I wanted to know.
“You’ll blend,” he insisted.
I snarfed out loud. Had he taken a look at me lately?
“We’ll get to the truth,” Finnegan continued, nodding to Lucien, “Or else the pack has no choice.”
“Wait,” I didn’t like the sound of that. “No choice in what?”
“We need closure by the full moon,” Finnegan said.
“Or?” There had to be an alternative. That was only three nights away.
“Or,” Lucien said, as if it were obvious, “your pack will avenge the death.”
Of course. We’d declare war on a county full of vampires. And if the rest of them were like this solid blonde wall, we didn’t have a chance. It’d be suicide for pack pride. And I really didn’t want to die. Not for Sunny anyway.
“Okay,” I threw up my hands, forgot I was holding the knife and sheathed it before Finnegan yelled at me again.
As if I was the one causing the problem.
“I’ll do it. I’ll be the good wife.” Ick. It even hurt to say the word. “We’ll start with Sunny’s old crowd. The Predators. We’ll learn the truth.”
“Good,” Finnegan said, a victorious glint in his beady little eyes.
“But I’m not wearing heels,” I added.
Lucien leaned in from behind, his breath tickling my ear. “You’ll have to do a lot more than that.”